David, it's been over three years since the last interview (here) when We Answer to Another was published - what has happened in the intervening years?
Well, I'm no longer teaching, and I am effectively retired. This has given me time to work on a second edition of Political Visions and Illusions, which was published at the start of the century and was in need of an update.
That book went through several printings and now has been revised. Were you surprised at its success?
No and yes. No, because it filled a gap in the literature that I first noticed when I began teaching just over three decades ago. I found plenty of books that treated political ideologies, but I couldn't locate one that did what I thought needed to be done. So I wrote my own. Eventually, it went through 12 printings, the last two of which were in late 2017. I am, of course, pleased that it was picked up by so many politics instructors for use in the classroom.
But there were a couple of things that surprised me. First was the success of the Portuguese translation and Brazilian edition, titled Visões e Ilusões Políticas, published by Vida Nova in São Paulo in 2014. I've made a huge number of contacts in that country over the past few years, and well over half my so-called “friends” on Facebook are Brazilians. I am hoping that Vida Nova will translate the second edition as well. I've also received an offer to translate We Answer to Another, but I've heard nothing concrete on this as yet.
Second, I was not expecting that PV&I would be used profitably in theological seminaries. That prompted one important addition to the new revision, which I'll get to in a moment.
I have to ask then—what is new in this edition?
Quite a bit actually. The most significant change is a tweaking of the central thesis, in which I connect political ideologies with idolatry—the making of a god out of something the true God has created. Soon after the first edition was published, I began to think of the stories each of the ideologies tells—a redemptive narrative that parallels the biblical story of salvation in Jesus Christ. This angle I got from my friend and former colleague, Mike Goheen, and from the man on whom he wrote his dissertation, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. The new edition provided me the opportunity to rework the book so as to adjust its focus.
The second chapter on liberalism may have seen the most changes, because liberalism itself has changed since the start of the century. The longstanding effort to recast as many communities as possible as mere voluntary associations has taken a malignant turn in recent years. What began as an effort to expand and enhance individual freedom has effectively produced a climate in which this freedom has become the mere satisfaction of desires, with the larger society expected to affirm these desires indiscriminately. Those who persist in believing that such institutions as state, church, marriage and family answer to norms irreducible to the subjective wills of contracting individuals are increasingly vilified as narrow-minded and bigoted. The five stages in the development of liberalism that I described in the first edition no longer follow a linear progression. If the choice-enhancement state, the fifth stage, is followed through to its logical end, I believe it will foment the sorts of society-wide conflict that will lead to the Leviathan state of Hobbes, that is, it will double back to the first stage.
In recent years I have also come to see more clearly the importance of the institutional church for political life. In the first edition, my understanding of the church was primarily as the larger body of Christ living out its members' diverse callings throughout the broad array of life's responsibilities. But in a “Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript,” I now undertake to explore the role that the institutional church—the gathered community of the faithful meeting for worship and catechesis—might play with respect to political life. This will make the book even more relevant for ministers in training at seminaries, or even for seasoned parish clergy grappling with their roles in equipping their members for living out the kingdom in their daily lives.
Finally, at the end of the book are discussion questions for each chapter.
What are the key arguments of the book?
Well, I believe that political ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democratism and socialism, have each got something right. Liberalism is right about individual liberty. Conservatism is right about tradition. Nationalism, democratism and socialism are right about communal solidarity. However, each goes astray at precisely the point where it has seen a genuine truth. Liberals make too much of individual freedom at the expense of the legitimate claims of community. Conservatives stick with tradition, but they are often unable to distinguish between the positives and the negatives in a particular tradition. As I indicated earlier, each of these ideologies follows an implicit redemptive narrative, a story that parallels the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. This is most evident in Karl Marx and his heirs, but it can be found in the others as well. Conservatism is a bit different, but I won't go into that here. The religious roots of the ideologies have escaped most of the writers on the subject, which is why I wrote the book in the first place.
Who is it aimed at and why should they get hold of a copy?
The book can speak to virtually any educated person, although the primary audience is a Christian one. Many Christians understand that they are saved only through Jesus Christ and that they are called to live in gratitude for this salvation through the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Yet it's not always evident to them that this has implications for their life in the larger culture and society. Some Christians do get involved in politics, but such involvement may take the form of crusades on this or that particular issue. My book is an effort to get them to think more deeply about the spiritual foundations of political life.
If you think social conservatism is deficient, if you have doubts about the so-called social justice warriors, if you think populism may not be bringing the best leaders to the fore, then this book is for you!
What do you make of the current attraction for white evangelicals of Donald Trump?
I must admit, this came as a surprise to me. I didn't think Trump was a serious candidate at first; I thought he was merely trying to increase his brand recognition. Perhaps that's what he thought too. Some evangelicals appear to have sold their souls for Trump, but I don't think that's true of everyone. Many Americans voted less for him than against his opponent. Why?
Well, today's Democratic Party appears to have embraced all the logic—and illogic—of what I call the choice-enhancement state. You may have seen this statement from the US Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The Court is claiming to make each of us into a god, but this is incompatible with life in community, where we are bound together by norms irreducible to our private predilections. The Democratic Party has run with this expansive understanding of liberty, but in so doing it is threatening the liberties of real communities with their own nonliberal traditions. What we are now seeing in the Trump presidency is the predictable backlash against this.
However, the Republicans have embraced a different side of the liberal agenda, and it revolves largely around economic choice and the market. Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced the expansive ego, and both are tending towards an unhealthy statism, as Patrick Deneen has so lucidly explained in Why Liberalism Failed (2018). Trump is by no means the answer to this. As I see it, he is only a symptom of what's wrong in American public life.
Any observations for those of us currently undergoing Brexit?
As with Trump, I understand the motivations behind those voting to leave the European Union. Having to answer to so-called “eurocrats” in Brussels has irritated many Britons, whose insular geography has protected them from so many European tyrannies over the centuries, the most recent of which was three-quarters of a century ago.
However, I don't see why the EU needs to be a symmetrical federation along the lines of the United States, Germany and Australia. Here in Canada we have been compelled by our circumstances to experiment with an asymmetrical federalism in which Québec relates to Ottawa somewhat differently than the other nine provinces. Spain has done something similar with its regions. There is no reason why the EU could not consist of a more tightly integrated core, consisting perhaps of Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries, while other member states have a looser association with Brussels. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 offers the principle of subsidiarity, often associated with Catholic social teachings, as a means of differentiating the powers of Brussels and the member states:
In areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Community [or the EU] shall take action, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member states and can therefore, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved by the Community. Any action by the Community shall not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of this Treaty.
If this division of powers is taken seriously, it should be possible for the United Kingdom to remain in the Union while retaining its independence in domestic and much of foreign policy as well. Perhaps it's too late for that now, but the continual postponement of the departure date would seem to indicate that a lot of people are having second thoughts. Perhaps it's time for another shot at making EU membership work in a way that fits Britain's unique needs and aspirations.
Are there any other projects you are working on?
Well, a few years ago I wrote a series of reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism which I hope to publish at some point.
I have also worked out a quite detailed sketch of another major book on the relationship between political culture and political institutions. I've given this project the provisional title, “The Real Constitution.” For those of us in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper, I think we have not always been sufficiently aware of the cultural soil in which our political systems grow and develop. This cultural soil has religious foundations that cannot be called into existence by manipulating political institutions. Americans think their 18th-century founders were skilled constitutional engineers who produced something approaching a perfectly balanced system, but virtually every country that has tried to replicate these institutions for itself has ended up a presidential dictatorship. What is lacking in these countries is the culture of self-governance to which Americans had become practised during the colonial era. Culture matters much more than we are often aware.
What books have had the most influence on your life?
Well, this may seem like a terrible cliché, but the Bible has easily had the most influence. Over the decades I have maintained a regimen of daily morning and evening prayer, praying through the Psalms every 30 days (as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer), and reading the Old and New Testaments in course. Every time I read through its books, I see something I hadn't seen before. I was raised in a Bible-reading household, I worshipped in a Bible-believing church, and I still love God's written word.
Al Wolters' Creation Regained remains an inspiration for me and for so many others. I was privileged to sit under Wolters' teaching at the Institute for Christian Studies, and I still have the handwritten notes I took—the nucleus of what would become Creation Regained a few years later!
Other books include H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, Jim Skillen's The Scattered Voice and Bob Goudzwaard's Idols of Our Time.